In rural west Wales, a woman known as ‘Rebecca’, together with her ‘daughters’, violently resisted paying toll fees. From 1839 to 1843, and sporadically for long after, gangs of mainly tenant farmers, dressed in women’s clothing and with blackened faces, responding to the call of a hunting horn, attacked and often destroyed toll booths and other infrastructure on the many privately-owned toll roads. To get their produce to market, the farmer needed to pass back and forth along these roads and also traditionally collected lime from them to improve their soils. As well as the toll road issue, many Welsh farmers and those who depended on them for employment were experiencing hard times and the payment of tithes, or taxes, to the Anglican church, while most Welsh people were chapel-going Methodists or other ‘dissenters’.
‘Rebecca’, or just ‘Becca’, was the name of the mythical leader under which they united. ‘She’ was often mounted on a horse during the toll gate attacks, an acknowledgement of the connection between the Rebecca movement and the traditional custom of the Ceffyl Pren (wooden horse). This was a form of public humiliation of wrongdoers by a local community, involving the parading of the miscreant through a village tied to a wooden frame, or ‘horse’. A ‘jury’ and ‘Foreman’ of men dressed in women’s clothes and with blacked faces administered the ceffyl pren, which was used as the organisational structure for the Rebecca riots. The symbolism of the connection was clearly one of righting perceived wrongs.
As with many other forms of protest and revolt, threatening letters were often sent to those the rebels identified as the source of their problems. This one was addressed to the people of St Clears, Carmarthenshire, in December 1842:
I wish to give you notice especial to those which has sworn to be connstable in order to graspe Becca and her children but I can sure you that it will be to hard matter for Bowlin and company to finish the job that they began and that is to keep up the Gate at Llanengel and [?] gate. Now take this few lines as information for you to mind yourselves, you that had any conection with Bowlin Messrs M. C. Lics, Mr Thomas Blue Boar, all thine property in one night shall be in conflagration if they will not obey to this notice. And that to send them vagabons away wich you are favourable to. I alway like to be plain in all my engagement – is it a reasonable thing that they impose so must on the country only picking poor labours and farmers pockets, and you depend that all the Gates that are on these small roads shall be destroyed. I am willing for the gates on the Queens Road to stand it is a shamefull thing for us welchmen to have the sons of Henegust have a dominion over us. Do you not remember the long knives which Henegust hath invented to kill our fore fathers and you may depend that you shall recieve the same, if you will not give up, when I shall give you a visit and that shall be in a short time, and now I would give an order to leave the place before I will come, for, I do determin that I will have my way all through. As for the constable and the policemen, Becca her children heeds no more of them than the Grass-hopers which fly in the summer there are others which as marked with Becca, but they shall not be named now but in case they will not obey to this notice she shall call about them in a short time.
Faithfull to Death
with the county
Becca & children
Dec, 16th 1842
Sometimes serious violence occurred during these midnight visitations, though nothing on the scale promised in the letters that usually preceded them. William Rees, toll collector on Trevaughan Turnpike Gate described his visit from Rebecca and her daughters in August 1843:
… between one and two o’clock on Sunday morning last he was disturbed by a man knocking at his door who enquired the way to Llanvallteg Bridge, which he told him and that immediately afterwards he heard the sound of horses, when about twenty five or thirty men disguised, (having white frocks on and their heads tied on with coloured handkerchiefs under their chins) came to his house and compelled him by threats, pointing at the same time three Guns at his breast to deliver up his Books, which they carried off. The Books contained among other accounts, the names of several persons who had refused to pay toll at the said Gate, he is unable to identify any of them, but the person nearest to his house window rode a grey horse.
This was a typical Rebecca visitation. The wise toll keeper did as he was told and did not interfere if the rioters pulled down his toll booth. In this case, Rebecca and her daughters seem to have been mainly interested in removing evidence of those who had refused to pay their tolls and who would otherwise have been prosecuted.
The authorities mounted mostly ineffectual attempts to forcibly put the riots down. Eventually, the toll gate system and problems with the poor laws were modified and the general economy improved. Nevertheless, some Rebaccaites were imprisoned and others transported.
Later in the century, and even into the early twentieth century, the name Rebecca and similar tactics were used by those protesting against restricted fishing rights along inland streams.
National Archives, Rebecca letter, 16 December 1842 (HO 45/265 f1
National Archives, Statement of William Rees, toll collector, 15 August 1843 (HO 45/454 f.415)